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  • Writer's pictureGreg Powers, REALTOR®

TELLING PEOPLE WHAT THEY CAN DO...OR CAN'T DO

Last month I was promoted to chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment in Manchester.  No, I’m not bragging—I’m pleading for sympathy, begging for thoughts and prayers.  I’ve been a member of the ZBA for a couple of years and have friends who serve as Aldermen and on the School Board, and it has dawned on me that there’s no easier way to create a phalanx of enemies than to enter public service.  But I’ll survive…I think.



I do suffer a degree of cognitive dissonance when my brain gets into zoning mode, though.  I’ve always had a fascination with architecture, especially the homemade or impromptu variety.  As a child, one of my favorite books was My Side of the Mountain, in which a young boy retreats to the woods and creates a makeshift home inside a tree.  I could’t imagine anything cooler than carving out the inside of some giant redwood and customizing it with cooking niches, sleeping bench, and other impromptu features as the need arose.  And I distinctly remember being angry and disgusted with the main character when he decided to abandon it and return home.  What a wimp!


I also spent a lot of my teen years reading survival manuals, as a corollary to my interest in camping, and I loved looking at illustrations of lean-tos and tarp shelters, imagining myself setting up home wherever my blistered feet halted me.  And in college I started accumulating books on indigenous architecture around the world.  I loved seeing pictures of the beautifully portable tipis and the awe-inspiring cliff dwellings of Native Americans; the carved sandstone dwellings of Cappadocia; and turf huts of the Iron Age in Britain.  And my love of treehouses inspired me to build one in our backyard for my three boys.  I applaud the idea that anything goes when you need a home.


So now I find it excruciating sometimes to read through a zoning ordinance and see that there is no parking allowed in a front yard and all other spaces have to be 4 feet from the lot line; or that a single-family home in one zone only needs 6,500 square feet of lot area but a two-family in the same zone needs at least 10,000 square feet.  The level of detail (and control) promulgated in the ordinance is sometimes mind-boggling.  



Man has been building homes and other structures for millennia, but zoning ordinances have only been around since the early part of the twentieth century.  New York City adopted the first comprehensive zoning map in 1916.  I also find it ironic that I, the new chair of the ZBA, grew up in Houston, one of the only cities in the country without any zoning laws. 


Now, I may be a romantic, but I’m not an idiot—I do see the need for land-use controls.  But I feel bad sometimes telling people that they can’t necessarily do what they want to with their property, a duty that is doubly hard in the “Live Free or Die” state.  


We on the Zoning Board frequently hear angry abutters exclaim that our job is to uphold the zoning ordinance; but in fact, our job is to make exceptions to the ordinance, as long as an applicant can make a good case and meet five specific but subjective criteria.  So while I, and we, have to rule by the carefully erected latticework of the ordinance, it’s a consolation that we can be the safety valve that prevents it from unnecessarily entangling someone.

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